Safety in Your Chair Means Safety on the Road

by Kathy Wechsler on March 1, 2004 - 10:18am

You owe it to yourself to drive safely. For people with disabilities who aren't able to transfer into a vehicles seat, traffic safety standards are only part of the equation for a safe journey.

Safety first

Something as simple as a sudden swerve or quick stop can be extremely dangerous to the occupant of a wheelchair, says Marty Roller of Fresno, Calif., branch manager of Driving Specialties, which provides expertise and equipment to make driving easier and more accessible for people with disabilities.

(above) Anita Nichols, CEO of Special Needs Vehicles in Tucson, Ariz., secures the author's rear wheelchair tires only after the front tires are securely restrained and the tie-down straps are taut.
(below) The wheelchair is secured in the front passenger seat with a QStraint system.

If you need to remain in your wheelchair while traveling in a vehicle, there are several important safety precautions.

It's crucial to be seated in either a manual wheelchair or a power wheelchair. Scooters don't provide enough security in case of an accident. The way they're built simply doesn't offer enough support, and a scooter should never be tied down while occupied, Roller says.

She prefers that people travel in power wheelchairs because the backs tend to be higher than those of manual chairs, and the extra body makes the chair extra sturdy for a safe ride.

"I like to see forward-facing wheelchairs," said Roller, who's been in the vehicle adaptation business for 12 years. "You have a little bit of stability behind your back with the back of the chair or a headrest."

Locking your brakes isn't enough of a safety precaution, but it should be done in conjunction with a wheelchair restraint system that will properly secure your chair to the floor of the vehicle. Not only do you want to fasten the chair tightly to avoid slipping, but it must be secured using an approved, crash-tested restraint system installed by a mobility dealer the same conversion specialists who make other adaptations. (See "When Your Plan Is a Van.")

All tie-down and lockdown systems must follow federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as well as state regulations in their manufacturing and installation. Each wheelchair restraint system is reviewed and tested by the installer to ensure safety and legality, and they can only be installed with the approval of the vehicle manufacturer.

"I've seen people use seatbelts from their cars to hold Mom's wheelchair in place, and that not only is illegal but it's very dangerous," said Roller, who disapproves of using ropes and other makeshift tie-downs.

Many states have laws requiring wheelchairs to be properly secured.

Never tie down a wheelchair with one strap, she advises. If the vehicle swerves, the wheelchair occupant can flip over. The best thing to do is to get a tested and approved restraint system with four tie-down straps one for each corner of the wheelchair.

Roller said, "The important thing for drivers and passengers is that they be secured in the proper, safe and legal manner. If they are, then of course the airbags are going to be helping them. If they're not secure and Mom comes flying out of the wheelchair, the airbag isn't going to do her much good."

Restraining yourself

Mobiliy dealers install wheelchair restraint systems based on what 'the individual needs.

The Solo Retraktor system by Sure-Lok uses a floor anchor in place of tracks in new or existing vehicles.

Manual wheelchair tie-downs are perfect for those who always travel with a caregiver or friend.

First, you need to have some type of tracking installed into the vehicle's floor for security. Then, four belts are attached to the tracking system and locked securely into place.

Several companies offer manual tie-downs. Roller uses belts from DLD Truck Straps, QStraint and Sure-Lok. She considers these equal in terms of safety, reliability and ease of use. Manual tie-down systems cost approximately $545 completely installed and can be used on either manual or power chairs.

Once a wheelchair is properly secured to the vehicle using an approved lockdown or tie-down system, Roller stresses the importance of locking the occupant into the seat by a lap belt.

A shoulder harness should be used if the chair is within 12 inches of the vehicle's wall. You can use the lap belt and shoulder harness that come with the vehicle and you'll also need a seat belt extender.

If you decide to go with a manual tie-down system, it's a good idea to keep some type of belt cutter in the vehicle. That may be the only way to get someone out in a hurry if there's a fire or accident.

Every wheelchair is different. The good news is that you can set up the tie-down station to accommodate different sizes if you transport more than one wheelchair user. This is what accessible public transportation vehicles do, and it can be done to your private vehicle as well.

The driver's seat

Dr. Appel
Melissa Pope of Special Needs Vehicles demonstrates how the EZ Lock system automatically locks a wheelchair in place.

The alternative to a manual tie-down system is an electric lockdown, which allows wheelchair users who drive to remain as independent as possible. Make sure it has a manual release for a backup in case something happens to the power.

This type of restraint system costs about $1,800 installed, and works with a bracket that's placed underneath the wheelchair, allowing you to pull into position before it automatically locks around the bracket for a tight fit. When you park the vehicle, simply push a button to be released.

"Most of my customers who drive from their wheelchairs use an electric lockdown system called EZ Lock," said Roller, who only sells products that are crash-tested by the manufacturers. "Their sole business is providing some type of locking unit for wheelchairs for transportation. They do it quite well."

Electric lockdowns can only accommodate one chair per wheelchair bracket and are made for either drivers or the sole wheelchair-using passenger in a vehicle.

Other things to consider

When considering a lockdown or tie-down system for your vehicle, make sure to get an evaluation from a professional. He or she will know all the ins and outs of finding the right restraint system for your particular van. Roller says it's also important to have a certified professional install the system to ensure that all legal and safety requirements are met.

"They will know how far apart the systems are per chair and what type of belts to use," Roller explained. "They'll know what type of bolts, and the proper way to install them in your vehicle so you're safe and secure."

If you buy a vehicle that already has a lockdown system, take it to an adaptive equipment installation company and have it checked out for safety. Have a professional ensure that the belts are safe and everything is in the proper position for optimum security. Make sure the right bolts were used if it's a manual tie-down.

Your wheelchair type does make a difference. Most chairs work with any restraint system, but some more advanced chairs are too large, heavy and low to the ground to properly secure in a vehicle.

Also some newer wheelchairs are too low and don't allow enough clearance for an electric lockdown. A wheelchair like that is better suited to a manual tie-down.

Then there are some wheelchairs that don't allow for any sort of attachment because there's plastic or molded housing around the bottoms of the chairs.

"Not only is it important to install the station well but to make sure that there's adequate tie-down points on the wheelchair to allow a good install," Roller said.

Can I go, too?

The vehicle manufacturer can tell you how many tie-down systems safely fit in your vehicle. There must be adequate room between wheelchairs so the caregiver can accurately secure them.

Of course, the best wheelchair restraint system is of no use unless you drive safely. The rules of the road don't change because you're driving from a chair.

"The most important thing I find for my clients is to make sure you know what's going on on the road around you and to be very aware when you're driving," said Roller. "Use your mirrors at all times."

Look in the local phone book under "Van Conversions" to find a company that installs tie-down systems.

Ahnafield Corp.
(800) 636-8060
electric lockdowns

Driving Specialties
(559) 291-2563

DLD Truck Straps
(888) 862-2878
manual tie-downs

EZ Lock
(225) 214-4620
electric lockdowns

Mobile Tech
(800) 835-5007
manual transit locks

(800) 987-9987

(866) 787-3565

Wheelchair transportation safety standards

No votes yet
MDA cannot respond to questions asked in the comments field. For help with questions, contact your local MDA office or clinic or email See comment policy